This article theorizes contemporary authoritarian mobilization and its continuities with liberal modernity. It draws on the genealogy of modern property to systematically integrate two registers that often compete in explanations of authoritarianism: materialist analyses of the political economy, and accounts of racism and sexism. Following intersectional feminist and race scholarship, it argues that liberal capitalist societies rely on inbuilt entitlements to group-based oppression, and that these oppressive relations historically took on a form analogous to property. This analogy is not accidental. Propertized oppression supplements the promise of self-ownership that liberalism rests upon; and it compensates parts of the population for the material dispossession on which capitalism thrives. At the present historical conjuncture of formal legal equality and neoliberal material dispossession, the logic of property is replicated in a new key. Neoauthoritarianism seeks to protect embodied entitlements to appropriate for select groups, and to designate others as disposable.
The recent upsurge of right-wing populism, authoritarianism, and neofascism in many countries around the globe is often equated with a crisis of liberalism; it is also understood to be closely linked to liberalism's “neoliberal” fusion with financialized capitalism. By establishing a more historical perspective, the following account challenges these explanations. I argue that current authoritarian tendencies, rather than presenting us either with offshoots of neoliberalism or with a decisive break from it, betray a very old feature of liberalism in capitalist modernity: propertized oppression.
Crawford Macpherson has argued that the liberal understanding of individuals as self-owners implies an understanding of rationality as industrious accumulation.1 Following the work of intersectional feminists and critical race scholars,2 I hope to show that there is also another dynamic implied by the aspiration to self-ownership. This dynamic is destructive and defensive. It plays out as the accumulation of property-like control over external domains; and it drives the objectification of people who, rather than being considered self-owners, find themselves in ownership's shadow.
Establishing a link between authoritarian politics and the genealogy of property allows me to systematically integrate two registers that often compete in explanations of authoritarianism: materialist analyses of the political economy, and intersectional accounts of group-directed hatred and prejudice. I reconstruct the history of self-ownership's oppressive side effects within an expanded Polanyian framework. This framework brings out a protective function that “authoritarian accumulation” has fulfilled for more privileged—but not necessarily propertied—parts of the population. Liberal capitalism systematically relies on such fraught protection, and authoritarian movements intermittently set out to defend it. Tending to the form of property thus also allows for a more detailed phenomenology of authoritarian mobilization within shifting regimes of accumulation. It captures the dual violence characteristic of ownership—the license both to protect and to subdue an outer domain—and can track how this violence is replicated in symbolic domains, that is, at the level I describe as that of “phantom possession.”
Let me offer a few preliminary remarks to justify the coinage “phantom possession” and to sketch out the structure of my argument. Existing debates in materialist social theory already supplement wage labor–centric accounts of exploitation with dispossession, and inflect abstract accounts of domination with property logics, allowing us to identify social domination as “dominion.”3 Yet, as I will explain in section 2, “dispossession” captures only half of the historical dynamics around the institution of modern ownership. The emerging capitalist order relied not only on the theft and concentration of resources. Colonial conquest and settlement, as well as the enclosure of commons in Western Europe, also reconfigured ownership itself. The developments known as dispossession were simultaneously processes of propertization: things owned in indigenous and feudal forms were transformed into modern property, which permits not just usage and control, but also abuse and destruction.4
On this basis, I argue that the extension of propertization to social relations and identities gives modern social domination the unique form that intersectional literature already relates to the phenomenology of property. I use the term “dominion” to name legally sanctioned, institutionalized control over living human beings. The paradigm cases of dominion, which I discuss in section 3, are chattel slavery and marriage under coverture. Likewise, detention, incarceration, and legal restrictions on reproductive rights can be classified as forms of institutionalized propertization.
But propertized oppression is not restricted to contexts where institutional arrangements explicitly guarantee property-like control to oppressors; it also structures social relations through internalized norms. With the concept of “phantom possession,” elaborated in section 4, I describe the embodied dispositions and the corresponding cultural schemas constitutive of modern race and gender identities. Those dispositions and schemas are inherited from the institutions of dominion (slavery and coverture). Despite their abstracted form, they still imply differential positions with respect to appropriation. After the removal of their institutionalized anchors, dispositions toward appropriation become ever more charged at the level of identity. Hence, phantom possession intensifies in the face of resistance and emancipation. Phantom possession in whiteness and masculinity is the excess accumulation of entitlement brought up against the horizon of the possible freedom of oppressed others. Phantom possession consists in the exceedingly unrealistic fantasy that full sovereignty over living, acting, self-conscious beings could be achieved, and in the violent imposition of signs of such disposability onto the oppressed. Like phantom pain, phantom possession is felt after amputation, even though the dispositions and schemas activated by it were formed before.5 Phantom possession is the goal of authoritarian accumulation. It is the mad place in the former subject of dominion who still feels entitled to rule over an empty domain, and the dead place in the former object of dominion who might be freed yet remains marked by the potential for appropriation.
Both on the material and on the symbolic level, propertization—or the accumulation of dominion and phantom possession—has provided social protection for parts of the population. It is this fraught protection that authoritarian movements seek to defend. In the concluding, fifth section, I will consider some examples of this, including the detention of immigrants, abortion bans, incel and white supremacist violence, and more widespread forms of resentment. While the neoliberalism of the last decades reiterated dispossession in a new key and drove individuals into self-entrepreneurship and debt, the regressive reaction to it is played out in an older register: the freedom of the wounded owner defending his phantom possession and refusing any social contract that does not restore it to him.
1. Neoliberalism's Revolting Freedom
Wendy Brown and Nancy Fraser have both pointed to the current neoliberal conjuncture in order to explain the resentment articulated in authoritarian populism. Their analyses, however, diverge strongly—so much so that they directly oppose each other on the question of whether authoritarianism is an extension of or a break with neoliberalism.6
Fraser's analytical framework for the history of capitalism is in part a revised Polanyianism. In his seminal study The Great Transformation, the Austrian economist Karl Polanyi depicted modern social history as a four-hundred-year-long struggle between marketization and social protection. Marketization, in Polanyi's analysis, is dispossessive and corrosive. Therefore, it is tragically the opposite of social protection, which consists in safeguarding the reproduction of societies and individuals within them.7 By focusing on British history, Polanyi marks out two major epochs of dispossessive marketization: first, the enclosures, which he identifies as a period stretching from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, and, second, the industrial revolution beginning at the end of the eighteenth century. The latter was driven by the marketization of land, labor, and money. Polanyi calls these three “fictitious commodities,” because they form part of the substance of the social and are not originally produced as commodities. Furthermore, they cannot be treated as commodities without unleashing crisis-tendencies.8
With an argument already developed in her critique of Jürgen Habermas's theory of the lifeworld, Fraser complicates this picture.9 She argues that Polanyi's antagonism between the social and the market obscures the fact that traditional, noncapitalist social relations were riveted with domination, and did not equally “protect” all. Contrary to what a certain antimodern romanticism in Polanyi might suggest, access to wage labor might well be preferable to fraught “protection.” For some at least, marketization might even coincide with emancipation. Emancipation, therefore, is a third force that Fraser introduces to recount this historical development. In her triangulation of Polanyi's two-tiered analytic grid, instead of an ongoing antagonism between marketization and social protection, she suggests that temporary alliances or “elective affinities” structure the course of capitalist history. Any two forces can join. It is this framework that underlies Fraser's recent political diagnosis of “progressive neoliberalism's” breakup by regressive and populist electoral success. In Fraser's description, the neoliberal project is closely connected to a legitimatizing embrace of progressive identity politics, and thus based on an alliance between marketization and emancipation. Social movements that have not worked to distance themselves from this alliance are partly at fault for the resentment they now reap, as social dissent will necessarily oppose the entire package.10 To Fraser, therefore, the breakup is welcome, as it allows for a new alliance between social protection and emancipation to form—an alliance that then could effectively oppose capitalist marketization.
However, the claim that authoritarianism is a revolt against, and not an extension of, neoliberalism is questionable. It follows from a framework that omits the darker ideological dimensions of capitalist modernity—or, at best, relegates them to the background.11 The fraught protection she accuses Polanyi of ignoring does not fully enter her systematic picture either. This imbalance is not a necessary result of supplementing Polanyi. In fact, it could be counterbalanced by a more symmetrical overlay of Polanyi's backward- and forward-looking analyses. His full historical panorama, formulated in 1944, is not just composed of two struggling forces (marketization and social protection), but also contains two entirely opposed outcomes of that struggle, which for him culminates in the ultimate decision between democratic socialism and fascism: the acknowledgement of social substance in keeping with freedom, or by the eclipse of it. Weaving emancipation a long way back into history, Fraser partially draws on one outcome of that equation (socialism) and makes it compatible with the two processual forces, but she neglects historical traces of the other possible outcome (fascism). Fraser's argument that current authoritarian trends should be seen as a revolt—however misguided—against neoliberalism itself, is incomplete. It loses sight of the possibility that rather than just the partly misguided reaction to a supposed hegemony of progressive neoliberalism, the authoritarian revolt might be a surfacing of forces coextensive with capitalism as a whole, forces that I will characterize below as forces of “propertization.” This might be not the resistance to, but the persistence of, accumulation.
For Brown, by contrast, the authoritarian surge is precisely the continuation—or even the apocalyptic finale—of what she calls “neoliberalism's stealth revolution.” Neoliberalism, in her account, is not primarily an ideology, a state policy, or a phase of capitalism, but a rationality in the Foucauldian sense: a set of normative and normalizing principles shaping reason and reality. The crucial bridge from neoliberal rationality to authoritarian ravage, according to Brown, is a new, horrendous notion of freedom. In an interesting inversion of Herbert Marcuse's 1934 analysis of liberalism's and fascism's shared traits, Brown argues that it is not the submission to an external force—be it the market or “natural” hierarchy—but rather the rebellion against any self-restraint and coordination that is characteristic of contemporary, neoliberal authoritarian personalities.12 Surpassing the long-standing Hegelian critique of the modern, liberal notion of freedom as one-sidedly negative, Brown presents neoliberalism's new, paradigmatic understanding of freedom as irrecoverably corrupt.13 This allows her to explain twenty-first-century authoritarianism as neoliberalism's potentiation. What opened Pandora's box from without—neoliberal rationality—is also what equipped it from within—antisocial liberty. But does this not gloss over a discontinuity between self-optimizing market-submission and “revolting freedom”? Entrepreneurs do seem to follow somewhat different norms than fascist thugs. Or else there seems to be a certain danger of lapsing into a negative anthropology, as though neoliberal imperatives simply grind away all constraints, and once no autonomous person, no sovereign demos, no impartial law is left standing, the lowest instincts are let loose. What if these lowest instincts are nothing but an older layer of authoritarian freedom, brought to bear against new frustrations?
Brown's own description can be read as pointing in such a direction. She provides the following categorization of three different strands of what she calls “neoliberal energies” among Trump voters in the United States:
The first strain yearns for protection, stability, and order. It is motivated by anxiety and fearfulness; it responded to the strongman, the wall builder, the decider, the enforcer. These are especially the middle-aged white suburbanites. They might be recoverable.
The second strain yearns for disruption and revenge . . . They are animated more by humiliation and rage than by fear. They responded to the boorishness, the bravado, the swagger, the willingness to blow things up without caring where the pieces would land. These are the thugs, the trolls, the provocateurs, and they will hang on the longest.
The third strain yearns for a fix. It is motivated by socio-economic frustration, it responded to the promise of tax cuts, of protectionism, of bringing jobs back. These are classic republicans and the swing voters.14
According to Brown, all of the above—the anxious protection-seeker, the wounded bully, and the frustrated hopeful—have authoritarian leanings, and the second type might even slide into fascism. What strikes me about this typology, however, is that all three categories seem to portray not entrepreneurial subjects or “firms,”15 but troubled owners. The fearful first one clings to his property and looks out for a sovereign—or for a big guy—to defend it against intruders. The raging second one is already dispossessed, empty-handed yet full of entitlement. He is running wild because he has lost all trust in third parties to do the protection for him. And the third, ailing figure is an ambivalent, tormented owner—she who owns something that she sees crumbling and losing value.
This phenomenology lends some prima facie credibility to the hypothesis that what the disinhibited market subject displays might well be something older than itself, namely the energies of the modern owner with his twofold entitlement to violence: violence against threats to his property, but also violence against his property itself, as modern ownership—and modern ownership alone—implies the right to abuse.16 The destructive flavor of authoritarian freedom—revealed in contemporary forms of authoritarian aggression—would then have its roots not so much in market logics, but in property logics.
Linking affective and political formations to economic forms could be taken so literally as to make any further analysis superfluous. Maybe the revolting strata simply are dispossessed? Many people, after all, have lost their homes, their jobs, and their social security since the onset of the economic crisis. To distinguish the conundrum discussed under the heading of authoritarianism from expressions of rightful anger, a dual specification is required: that it is often the more privileged rather than the most dispossessed who drive the authoritarian revolt, and that their aggression is not directed against the causes of material suffering, but is always already linked to certain marginalized groups. The violence in question is not any kind of violence. In very different contexts, with striking unanimity, the authoritarian forces demonize racialized others, immigrants (especially from Muslim countries), and LGBTQI people. They dispute women's reproductive rights (while often also propounding conservative feminist values), deny the climate emergency, and turn against not the real nodes of power, but imagined conspiracies—of gender studies scholars, Jews, the media, or neo-Marxist intellectuals.
Fraser's argument that these articulations are nonetheless compatible with a straightforwardly materialist reading of resentment as reaction to economic dispossession, and that they should be seen as a revolt—however misguided—against neoliberalism itself, misses the persistence of ideological oppression. Yet Brown's attention to the destructive energies of our current neoliberal constellation also requires additional resources to explain what the lost object of revolting freedom might be—an ideological object, to be sure, but one that arose from material conditions prestructuring the violence displayed in its pursuit.
2. Dispossession and Propertization
The transition from noncapitalist to capitalist economic relations has concerned historians of capitalism for a long time. Against the liberal credo that profit-maximizing truck and barter is a universal human practice and has only become more expansive and effective under capitalism, they emphasize the specificity of its historical conditions. Polanyi makes this point by refuting the equation between socially embedded, traditional markets and disembedded capitalist ones.17 Karl Marx and more erudite historians in his tradition argue that capitalist accumulation presupposes a crucial division between, on the one hand, privately owned means of production, and, on the other hand, property-less workers who can only sustain themselves by way of wage labor. Within capitalist production, this concentration of property on the side of the capitalist is perpetually reproduced, but in the first place it needed to be instated by brute force, or what Marx himself already called “so-called primitive accumulation.”18 Marx locates this stage-setting phase primarily in England, the nation that later led industrial capitalist development, while focusing on the enclosures. These transformed land, which was populated by smallholding peasants and tenant farmers and which was also partly organized in commons, into pastures for sheep under the exclusive control of the manorial owner. Bereft of its livelihood, the rural population moved to the cities and served as labor power for emerging industry. In his much more detailed reconstruction of this process, Polanyi stresses the duration of what seems more like a short, brutal episode in Marx. The dispossession of land, which peasants resisted massively, took a good two hundred years, and moreover had it gone any faster, according to Polanyi, it would have entirely ruined the social fabric of British society.19
Similarly, Silvia Federici expands on the period by claiming that it was not only access to the land but also to community organization and reproductive knowledge that stood in the way of urbanization and proletarianization; destroying earlier forms of reproductive knowledge required two centuries of terror against women in the form of witch hunts. Federici, however, points not just to an extension of primitive accumulation, but to its perpetuity. Enclosures and witch hunts, according to her, not only mark the beginning of capitalism but are an ongoing feature of it.20 This view that primitive accumulation is not a stage but a structural feature of capitalism was already held by Peter Kropotkin and Rosa Luxemburg, and has recently culminated in a debate on the theory as well as the history of capitalism.
Within that debate, Robert Nichols has suggested that we “disaggregate” primitive accumulation and focus on dispossession as that element which keeps recurring alongside the exploitation of wage labor. After all, as plausible as it seems that it is essential to capitalism to always begin again, there must be a difference between the first beginning, defined as a transition into capitalism, and subsequent “beginnings” within it. According to Nichols, what these beginnings all share is the element of dispossession.21 Nichols also dwells on the paradox that these dispossessions, whether they involve the theft of colonial lands or the enclosure of commons, mostly consist in the taking of something which did not have the form of property before. This poses a problem for the critic who wants to point to the scandal of dispossession but not reaffirm property-logic. Thus, Nichols argues for specifying the definition of “dispossession” as “property-generating theft.”22
Although Nichols makes a compelling case for the metaleptic use of dispossession, for my present purposes I prefer to distinguish analytically between the taking and the making of property, that is, between dispossession and propertization. While dispossession, defined as violent appropriation, might well be as old as humankind and is certainly not specific to the history of capitalism, propertization is specifically modern. As it is used by social historians, the term propertization describes the process of a good's assuming the uniquely pervasive form of modern property.23
Though he was the most acute observer of property's marketability in the form of the commodity, the mature Marx was too focused on the alienation of immediate producers from means of production to note that not only is the subject in that process transformed—from self-sufficient peasant and artisan to wage-dependent laborer—but the object is also changed. Like Proudhon before him, Marx might have assumed that modern property was simply a recuperation of the Roman law institution. Recent research in intellectual history makes a compelling case that this is not so. What changed during the course of “primitive accumulation” and colonialism was not just who had access to and control over resources, but what controlling meant. What used to be complex, disparate feudal titles, nonpropertized commons, or sacralized ecosystems, became bounded and disposable property in the modern sense over the course of a long development of registration and legislation, and in mutual reinforcement with the commodity form. Brenna Bhandar has described one aspect of property's transformation as a process of abstraction. As one example, she discusses the Torrens land registration system, which was implemented in the colony of South Australia in 1858 and then reimported to the UK seventy years later to help overhaul feudal limitations on ownership.24 This system replaced locally specific relations of use and occupation with a centrally administered grid allowing ownership to function remotely and unequivocally. In the colonies, it reinforced the fiction of terra nullius; the land was treated as unoccupied to begin with. Title by registration is thus a perfect example of dispossession via propertization. Later, in twentieth-century England, registration erased the last links between ownership and feudal privileges and obligations, and thereby reconfigured existing modes of belonging. Thus it is possible to speak of propertization in the sense proposed here even where the objects at stake were property before. It suffices that they were property of a different kind. But what kind of property is modern property, then? How does it differ in form, and not just in distribution, from its indigenous and feudal predecessors?
Modern property is unique in two ways, both of which can be accounted for as totalizations. First, modern property licenses absolute dominion, that is, it amounts to the total control of the object owned. Notably, this includes the object's destruction. After four centuries of propertization, it seems hard for us even to understand what owning would mean if it did not entail that right to violation. Owning something simply implies that I can do what I want with it. Yet, as Peter Garnsey has recently shown, this understanding of property is not universal. Neither the feudal order newly overcome nor the indigenous orders colonized in the “New World” envisioned disposal over what one owned as unlimited. The right to destroy is a modern phenomenon. It was never encoded in Roman law either.25 The Latinized formula, ius abutendi, came up in the course of the Franciscan poverty debates in the thirteenth century in an argument against the monks' attempts to exist in perfect poverty.26 But those remote scholastic debates were a far cry from general legal and social practice, and only resurfaced when their key term could be used to consolidate colonial and manorial appropriations of land. Propertization, then, in the first instance, pertains to the property form itself; it describes the process of property's coming to entail absolute disposal. In modern Roman law, this disposal was only codified after the French Revolution, in the Code Napoleon, which explicitly lists the ius abutendi among the owner's prerogatives. Common-law interpretations had likewise come to identify ownership with unlimited disposal or “absolute dominion,” as, for instance, William Blackstone's canonical 1763 commentary shows. He there defines property as “that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world.”27 Even if many actual titles of ownership are limited by additional proscriptions, the very need to make these explicit shows that the new default is full disposal or “sole and despotic dominion.” This created a distinct way of relating to the world, and to objects within it. The modern property form introduced an idea of power which cannot be reduced to commodities' profit incentives, even though these two modern dynamics, marketization and propertization, were mutually reinforcing.
The second specificity of modern ownership, after the intensification of control, pertains to the way in which property became fundamental for many other institutions in liberal capitalist societies. Property became pervasive across many social areas. It structured disposal over goods—crucially making them fit for profit accumulation by lifting all limits to damage and alienation. It also became the linchpin of legitimacy for the newly emerging political bodies, that is, states, as is most clearly demonstrated in the contract theories of Locke and Hobbes. Moreover, as Christoph Menke has recently emphasized, property became paradigmatic for the form of rights as such. Modern subjective rights, political rights to liberty, are themselves defined in terms of property.28 And, finally, the subject itself was conceived on the basis of property, as a relation of self-ownership. Even the fiercest critics of the property order instituted during the enclosures in Great Britain endorsed the idea of self-ownership. The Levellers, named after their attacks on fences, claimed already prior to Locke that, “for every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else he could not be himself,” as a pamphlet by Richard Overton put it in 1646.29 Thus, if we return to the scene of the European enclosures, we see that the rural population was not just facing the violence of starvation and weapons; they did not just run into fences; they ran into a new social institution, a new type of entitlement. They learned what property rights were as they learned what it was that they apparently lacked. And what they lacked, interestingly, bore an even greater promise than their material livelihood lost: the total liberty of the owner. What I introduced from the point of view of the object as destructive excess amounts, from the point of view of the subject of property, to a guarantee of unprecedented freedom. A modern man, very unlike a medieval Franciscan, can recognize in his property—property recognized by all others—the actualization of his freedom.30
To conclude, let me recapitulate these developments in the extended Polanyian terms introduced in the first section. Propertization, in the context of dispossession, was partially in keeping with emancipation in that it set free self-owners who experienced their will as capable of the absolute volition enshrined in the right to external property. And yet this freedom, if taken in isolation within its propertized domain, already contained the license and antisociality of what Brown calls “authoritarian freedom.” Propertization was also clearly in keeping with the other Polanyian strand, marketization, because it made goods attributable, exchangeable, and creditable. At the same time, propertization, for most of the population, dramatically broke down social protection, because the goods propertized were precisely not under their control. For rural European people, propertization meant dispossession. This provoked a crisis in need of resolution.
3. Fictitious Property in Social Dominion
The processes that I have described, emphasizing propertization, represent a very simplified version of the historical transition into liberal-capitalist social relations. The expanded Polanyianism—that is, a framework involving dynamics of marketization, propertization, and emancipation—was modeled largely on the English case, though it at least emphasized the crucial role of colonial land seizure. In the following, I hope to show that this framework does allow for greater precision and differentiation than more standard accounts of perpetual primitive accumulation, as it can help us to spell out how the material side of economic dispossession is mediated, via the form of property, with new forms of group-based oppression.
The crisis reconstructed above was caused by the undermining of social protection for the landless rural population, caused by dispossession from both propertization and marketization. Although propertization is also in keeping with emancipation inasmuch as it promises a radical new form of freedom, it is contravened for large parts of the population by the lack of an actual domain in which to experience that freedom. Bereft of property, people lacked both emancipation and social protection. One partial resolution to this conundrum, especially prominent in the early nineteenth century, was achieved through settler colonial means: Europe's surplus population could seek their “despotic dominion” in the New World, replicating the dynamics of dispossession by propertization, this time by dispossessing indigenous people.31 My focus in the following section will not be on the full scope of these developments. Instead, I will concentrate on only two further projects of propertization, located on either side of the Atlantic. I will analyze the institutions of slavery and patriarchal marriage as specific kinds of domination, both based on property-logics—in these cases, property in the person and property in reproductive capacities, respectively. My claim that dominion is a specifically modern form of domination, however, is not meant to suggest that it arose from relations previously devoid of domination. Slavery existed well before modern property, but only the unlimited disposal of modern property allows for a system such as chattel slavery. Likewise, patriarchy is a relation of subordination much older than modern capitalism, a subordination that might even have resembled ownership before—except that property itself did not have the same form and function. By exploiting previous hierarchies, slavery and marriage created new types of social domination.32 Both institutions, as I will go on to show in more detail, harnessed the propertization of powerless parts of the population to the social protection of parts of the property-less.
In my sketch of the modern property revolution, I connected propertization with two totalizations: first, the delimitation of the disposal over one's belongings, and, second, the becoming-paradigmatic of the form of property for multiple further institutions such as commodities, rights, labor-power, and the state. Those two totalizations are intertwined. Propertized relations are characterized by unprecedented freedom of disposal for the subject and unlimited capacity to abuse the object. This subject-object logic marks the specificity of intersecting forms of modern social domination, which I will define as “dominion.” The term dominion covers all social relations that contain an actual moment of property-like disposal over an essential aspect of the subjected person. Institutions of dominion accord a sphere of volition to a subject-owner, and rely on the propertization of social relations. As I hope to show in section 4, this understanding of dominion can then be used to ground a more specific analysis of the wider ideological formations of sexism and racism.
Discussing slavery and marriage using a single terminological framework raises the risk of conflating these two forms of domination. But the terminology of propertization allows us to differentiate white supremacy and patriarchy not just with reference to the respective oppressed groups. Accounting for the scope and target of propertization specifies white supremacy as the disposal over propertized personhood and patriarchy as the disposal over reproductive capacity. This introduces a qualitative difference between the two forms of oppression, which intersect at the place of propertization. As an additional advantage, this description captures domination without presupposing the binary race and gender identities which only came to be formed over time within those oppressive relations.
Under slavery, the most drastic form of dominion in modern history, the propertized person is literally the object of property and is additionally “abstracted” by commodification and financialization.33 Nevertheless, as Patricia Williams has emphasized, this propertization, grafted onto an irreducible social relation and imposed onto living human beings, is never entirely complete. Black bodies might be turned into mere flesh, as Hortense Spillers argues, but they still retain agency.34 This agency is effectively acknowledged by the racist criminal trials against enslaved persons. It is also betrayed by the fact that slave compliance and labor could be extracted only under conditions of perpetual force. According to W. E. B. Du Bois, under these conditions, the only power to strike for enslaved laborers involves working slowly, or badly.35 Crucially, this extends to the refusal to reproduce. Thus, although the claim to property is real, codified by law and monetized in the plantation economy, ownership remains to some extent fictitious.36 There is a mismatch between the ontology of living, self-conscious beings, no matter how oppressed, and the logic of modern property, which renders its objects entirely disposable. Inspired by Polanyi's account of fictitious commodities, I call the object of dominion, of propertized social domination, “fictitious property.” Like Polanyi's fictitious commodities, land, labor, and money, fictitious property, too, unleashes destruction. But the fact that the modern, absolute form of property never fully encompasses human objects does not mean that propertization is limited. On the contrary, propertization is paradoxically intensified in this context. Owners of fictitious property must always resort to the right to break and destroy; that is, they perpetually activate the violence inherent to modern property. Enacting the ius abutendi (the right to abuse) performatively stabilizes their precarious property and sharply distinguishes modern dominion from feudal lordship, and even from forms of slavery based on less absolute notions of property.37
How is fictitious property in persons linked to the scene of dispossession sketched out in the previous section? The exchange of labor for wages presupposes the propertization not only of the capital concentrated in the employers' hands, but also of the capacities of the worker. He needs to own that peculiar new property, labor power. That ownership is not just retroactively constituted in the act of contracting it away, however, but is forged by enabling factors. As Silvia Federici in particular has shown in great historical detail, everywhere in early modern Europe, the landless population was extremely reluctant to settle for waged work.38 After all, the loss that they had just experienced was not one of nascent modern selfhood and contracting rights. Uprooted early modern people had learned that the very institution robbing them of land and larder—exclusive and absolute private property—was itself an avenue to that great modern prospect, freedom. Pacifying them would require making them believe that they, too, had access to this prospect. The inner stabilization of the precarious new intrasubjective form of fictitious property, the worker's own labor power, was provided by the existence of slavery. Following Orlando Patterson—and closely reading early modern theorists—one can say that the very idea of freedom as self-ownership could only gain traction against the background formed by the embodied specter of freedom's others: enslaved people who really did not own themselves.
And yet, there is a limitation, frustration even, inbuilt in self-ownership. As one is simultaneously the subject and the object of that property, the volitional pleasure of arbitrary disposal, of the right even to ravage and to break, is curbed. For the full scope of sovereign freedom to be enjoyed, an outer sphere of volition is required. This would allow for more than comparative self-control, for absolute dominion. In European societies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, patriarchy provided the immediate resource for externally stabilizing self-ownership and providing it with a material basis. Federici's analysis of witch hunts as a campaign of terror fought against unruly women shows how important the subjugation of reproductive labor was for the achievement of proletarization. Her analysis underscores the dispossessive nature of the loss of the commons, community, and female autonomy. The terminology of propertization can help to bring out an aspect that remains implicit in her account, namely that alongside a new distribution of property, what emerged was also a new form of property. The subjugation of women in patriarchal marriage not only deprived them of something they had collectively controlled before, but constructed them as endowed with something—an appropriable reproductive capacity—that made up for the lack of dominion of unpropertied self-owning subjects and became an outlet for the expansive desires of propertied ones. The witch hunts conducted during the seventeenth century did not primarily eliminate women who defended the commons, but people who resisted the emergent form of dominion—single and nonreproducing women, unruly wives, midwives, and herbalists who kept watch over reproduction.39 All of these women raised doubts only articulable in a regime which had started to regard women as potential property, arousing the suspicion that they might have become the property not of a husband, but of the devil.
Forms of dominion premised on the modern property form differ from one another in their implications for the “radius” of propertization. Under patriarchy, the crucial institutional form of fictitious property was marriage under coverture. The name “coverture” refers to the notion that the wife was legally “covered” by her husband, which was the general understanding of marriage both in mainland Europe and in England from the late Middle Ages on, and significantly tightened in the seventeenth century.40 This coverage meant that the wife lost all contracting rights and also the right to hold property—including that which she brought into the marriage.
Despite the analogies found in centuries of feminist writing, as wives, free women did not become the property of their husbands. Enslaved women, in fact, were denied marriage rights altogether. That husbands did not own their wives is shown by the fact that (with a few exceptions) men could not buy and sell women—just sexual services.41 What is propertized in white marital relations is not the woman as such, but female reproductive capacity. This includes not only whatever actual belongings she might have—and lose in coverture. It also includes what Carole Pateman calls “sex rights,” that is, the sexual access of husbands to the female body, and the disposal over the children that wives give birth to.42 In addition, “reproductive capacity” includes domestic labor and care work, addressing physical and psychological needs, extracted from women. Women also did not own their labor power—which could be seen as part of their overall reproductive capacity. Although very often working-class women did perform wage labor in addition to unpaid reproductive work, well into the twentieth century husbands were accorded control over whether or not women were allowed to use their labor power outside the household. By implication, part of what propertization means, then, is that “labor” disappears as such from female activity, and women's services come to be seen as resources, flowing, as it were, from their nature.43
Modeling patriarchal and white supremacist forms of modern domination on a dyadic relation, as I do here by using the term dominion, might draw accusations of understating the anonymous nature of modern domination, or of misunderstanding modern structural control by remaining bound to a premodern master-subject model. This is, for instance, why Fraser finds fault with Pateman's account.44
I hope to have already shown, however, that dominion is not a feudal relic. Dominion as I conceptualize it here is, in fact, neither premodern nor timeless domination, but refers to a specifically capitalist, and Western, set of institutions. These arise after the feudal unity of imperium and dominium, rule and ownership, is broken up.45 Between imperium, defined as a now consensus-bound form of rule over free persons, and dominium, defined as a now totalized form of disposal over objects, new, generalized forms of social control arose. One of these that is anonymous and all-encompassing was the systemic rule of capital analyzed by Marx. Unlike in premodern personal subjugation, the worker was now precisely not directly dominated by the capitalist. Instead, the worker encountered him as a nominally free and equal contracting partner. Given the material circumstances of that encounter, the worker's unfreedom is nevertheless infinitely perpetuated. He has no choice but to sell his labor, and after he has sold his labor, its fruits are siphoned off by the capitalist, thus reproducing the initial inequality.
Marxist feminist accounts—of which Fraser's is an important example—directly derive the other—and indeed the othering—modern forms of domination from this first one. Capital's thirst for unpaid labor—for the unpaid reproductive labor of women, which sustains labor power, and for unpaid expropriated labor, which lowers production costs and cheapens wages—causes the subjection of women and racialized people both.46 This, I think, perfectly captures the systemic logic of a certain phase of capitalist accumulation,47 but it can explain neither the full scope of dominion nor its emergence.
As for the scope of dominion, what at times escapes Marxist feminist analyses and puts them in such conflict with radical feminist ones is the violence and excess that are part of this equation.48 Women serve not only the reproductive necessities of male household members. They serve their will as well. From the perspective of propertization, we can say that a full understanding of the reproductive necessities of the subject supposed to own his labor power, must include an account of this subject's external domain of volition. There has to be a sphere within which unaccountable sovereignty can be enacted. We can better understand the violence and the persistence of racism and patriarchy if we also explicate the benefits that these transfer directly to white men, not just their employers, and acknowledge the extent to which this is also a symbolic benefit.
In addition—and this brings me to the question of the historical emergence of modern patriarchy—the symbolic gains in sovereign status achieved by the subject of dominion served to remedy the crisis in social protection brought about by propertization. Propertized patriarchal relations, besides shoring up propertied patriarchal succession, provided a direct compensation for the white male part of the population on either side of the Atlantic. These men, too, could accumulate by dispossession, and they, too, could partake in that modern fantasy of propertied sovereignty, a sovereignty that was neither “pure” self-ownership nor mere labor contract. Having fictitious property meant being equal to the man at the other end of the contract, not just in the act of contracting, but in owning a sphere in which one's will could be realized. In this way, the analysis of dominion gives a plausible explanation of how these forms of domination historically arose as a reaction to a preceding constellation rather than deriving them as functional necessities from capitalist accumulation.
If the antagonism between marketization and social protection structures the development of capitalist modernity, we can now better see how propertization works on both sides. It creates (or retroactively consolidates) the preconditions for any marketization in that it renders things disposable. Land, labor, and credit, as the “fictitious commodities” that Polanyi considers crucial for industrial capitalism, were not always tradable goods. They needed to be framed in the form of property—always already partly fictitious property—in order to seem bounded, controllable, alienable enough for the market. But propertization not only forged objects for the market. In objectifying social relations and subjectivities, it created fictitious owners as well. Even when they were deprived of material resources, these fictitious owners found social protection in the reproductive work appropriable by them and in the sovereign status granted to them by the domains at their disposal. And those domains were also novelties, providing the base for the naturalized gender dichotomy, and the naturalized racial hierarchies to come.
4. Phantom Possession in Modern Identities
In the previous section, I tried to establish that the institutions of modern slavery and marriage under coverture could both be analyzed as dominion: both are based on propertized social relations within which an inseparable aspect of one person is treated as the property of another. I further claimed that these institutions helped to turn self-ownership into a socially protective accomplishment for white men. The contrast with slavery rendered the “double freedom” of the materially unpropertied attractive, and the disposal over reproductive capacities in marriage supplied an external, property-like domain. In this section, I want to carry the property analogy further. I will argue that the modern identities of race and gender, taking full shape over the course of the nineteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic, display features of propertization, or, in fact, are themselves features of propertization.49 This shared root does not result in homologous analyses of race and gender, as they arise from different paradigmatic institutions of dominion. Using a term borrowed from the sociologist Anne Swidler, we can say that race is “anchored” in the fictitious property form of slavery, and gender is “anchored” in patriarchal marriage.50
In light of this anchoring, I understand the identities in question as embodied schemas that constitute differential dispositions at the level of appropriation—dispositions to appropriate, or to be appropriable. This retraction of dominion into its subjects, the potential to partake in dominion, is what I call phantom possession. The term allows us to link the subjective side of embodied entitlement to dominion to the objective side of propertization. As in phantom pain, here we find both a set of reactive stimuli and the fantasy of an object of control haunting its vacated domain. Unlike in the case of lost limbs, though, in phantom possession the object itself is a subject, alive and autonomous. This is exactly the reality that the phantasm of propertization protects the phantom owner against. Consequently, the oppressed subject is burdened with its own dispositions for subjection, subjection that operates according to the script of a spectral phantom of itself.
“Possession” is usually distinguished in two ways from ownership. It can imply the derived status—what one merely rents—and thus leave room for someone else's claim to the ownership. Alternatively, possession can be used to describe the holding of an object, which makes it possible to distinguish between remote ownership and a more active relation, where the ownership of an object coincides with its use. Phantom possession is derivative, because it relies (at least for its emergence) on the institutional background of fictitious property. It might seem counterintuitive to describe phantom possession as more immediately realized than fictitious property, given that the latter implies the actualized relation of propertized domination. But, as I highlighted before, something remains elusive even in full dominion: namely, the agency of the bodies dominated, however constrained these bodies may be, their interiority, the reality of their resistance. Phantom possession allows the dominant subjects to abstract from this lived relation. As reified identity, phantom possession shields the potential fictitious owner not just against the reality, but also against the loss, of their object. Calling phantom possession abstract, in a left Hegelian usage, denotes not generality, but rather the isolation of an element from its constitutive context. Precisely by abstracting from the context of full dominion, phantom possession presents domination as ready to hand. As embodied identity, such possession is always immediately available.51
Masculinity and whiteness, though more complete when they are based on actual dominion, can at times be activated without the presence of another body ruled. They also feed into each other when the accumulation of whiteness corroborates the claim to the legitimate appropriation of women, while the objectification of Black bodies is used to curb Black masculinity, and to make any agency on the part of Black men look like the breaking of bounds. Femininity and blackness, as phantom possessions, imply specific vulnerabilities. In the case of Black women, gendered vulnerability easily gets overridden, as racialization renders them always already dispossessed in their entirety and figured as available for appropriation and sexualization. As Angela Davis has argued forcefully, certain norms of white, bourgeois, domestic femininity never were applied to Black women. Although they were superexploited as females in their reproductive capacity, enslaved women were not gendered in a demarcated way. It was as if the propertization of sex were cancelled out by the encompassing and gender-neutral propertization of chattel.52 As Anne McClintock puts it, gender and race emerged “in and through relation to each other” as “articulated categories.”53 I want to suggest regarding the form of property as something like the joint in these articulations.
Attending to the genealogy of property will not bring about a complete account of the intertwined content of race and gender identities—here, the intersectional scholarship to which I am indebted offers a much richer picture. But with the eventual aim of elucidating contemporary struggles, the unified terminological framework of propertization can bring out the longue durée of a characteristic of modern oppression. In addition, the concept of phantom possession draws attention to the fact that gender and race are not simple hierarchies. It is not just superiority and inferiority that are normalized in race and gender. Rather, observable power relations are an effect of the normalization of gender and race as variants of phantom possession: phantom possession in human bodies and in human reproductive capacities, phantom possession that renders some humans mere flesh and others mere sex.
Cheryl Harris originally introduced the idea that the transmutation from institutional rule to oppression-laden identity can be captured in terms of property. Her account focuses on whiteness and argues that it is best understood as a form of property. Harris offers an intricate analysis to dispel the obvious worry that something inalienable cannot be fully analogous to property, arguing instead that whiteness functions as a basis for material securities, including crucially the guarantee that one will not become enslaved oneself. As for the inalienability of the property form that is “whiteness,” she points out that titles like degrees and welfare rights are inalienable yet can be considered property, too.54 I see the advantage of keeping the literal meaning of property in play when analyzing whiteness, but I think there is also a loss in assimilating the meaning of property to that of privilege to safeguard the analogy.55 Whiteness is not just a kind of prerogative, as aristocratic titles were in feudalism. Assimilating property to privilege loses the dimension of absolute disposal and “despotism” towards an external object. The notion of phantom possession introduces the symbolic character one step earlier and treats whiteness as an embodied disposition and entitlement to appropriation. But it keeps the specificity, as well as the extremity, of the modern notion of property in the picture, and bridges to its objectified other. For some to have phantom possession, others have to be it.
With regard to the analysis of blackness, Brenna Bhandar has argued in fascinating detail that “race” and “property” are coconstitutive in modernity, and that this coconstitution unfolds in a process of abstraction. According to her rich material analysis, property itself becomes more abstract, volatile, and disposable as new regimes of ownership attribution and registration are imposed on the colonies and the bodies of Black people. Conversely, “blackness” emerges as the sign for appropriability and abstracts from the humanity of its bearers in further economic operations including commodification and loan securitization. Thus one could say that what it takes for white subjects to “have” phantom possession in their whiteness is the enclosure of Black people into what Fanon called “a racial epidermal schema,” a schema that marks their disposability.56 Though the anchoring practice of slavery was not ubiquitous in liberal modernity, it was sufficiently universally known, and fundamental enough to the emerging global economy, to ground differential dispositions of appropriability with regard to mobility and personhood, and to racialize populations according to the script of phantom possession in different geographic locales.57
Unlike white dominion, whiteness as phantom possession does not require actual, personal ownership of Black people. With the color line established to differentiate between groups, white sovereignty can be guaranteed merely in contradistinction to propertized others. It is not only, as I argued before, that the specter of enslavement makes the self-ownership of labor power attractive. Racist regimes offer an additional benefit to the members of the dominating group. Du Bois has theorized this benefit as “white wages.”58 With this phrase, he captures a psychological surplus, the gratuitous feeling of safety and superiority, afforded to whites, even when they were poor workers, in the plantation economy. In terms closer to those I use throughout this paper, Ella Myers has recently provided a fresh reading of Du Bois, one that proposes a broader and more encompassing definition of modern whiteness than the standard account of “public and psychological wages” provides. “To be white,” she writes, “is to inhabit a possessive, proprietary orientation—toward the planet and to ‘darker people’ in particular.”59 Similarly, nuancing Harris rather than Du Bois, Chad Kautzer proposes the term “dominium” to cover the specific type of sovereignty characteristic of imperial whiteness.60 Paraphrased in my terms, one could say that beyond self-ownership, poor working whites enjoy phantom possession—a felt entitlement to dispose over the whereabouts and the humanity of Black people, and to be owed their service. The conceptual register of “ownership” as opposed to “wages” avoids the impression that this is in any way an exchange. For their “white wages,” the white workers precisely do not work.
In contrast to the articulation of racial identity in transnational economic and political relations, the specific disposal that white masculinity grants over white femininity is relegated to the private sphere of everyday life. As Simone de Beauvoir stressed, modern bourgeois women are a peculiar group—or nongroup—of oppressed people. Not a minority, they are so perfectly distributed as to each individually pair with one of their oppressors in the place called “home.”61 But for this bourgeois household norm to become nearly universal during the course of the nineteenth century (and then regressively reaffirmed after World War II), a lot of formation and discipline was historically necessary. This process depended on the notion that women's reproductive capacities were not their own. Or, better put: the notion that women's reproductive capacities were already potential property in the first place, and that they were appropriable by subjects who thereby proved to be masculine. In propertized gender relations, each man has within his reach the fulfillment of ownership's aspiration: to be a subject who can exercise his will entirely and freely in a certain sphere, to exercise volition as if one had an external domain of one's own, a sphere made up of objects to control, use, alienate, or destroy. This domain refers not just to the housework extracted to sustain men and their offspring, but to the whole sphere of the private realm and its heart, heterosexuality. Heterosexuality's reliance on a clearly delineated, bounded gender binary and on a hierarchy of objectification and domination between its poles is crucial to feminist theorizing.62 Female gender, tied to reproductive organs and eroticized body parts and enacted in various poses that affirm constraint and produce allure within its confines, is propertization turned identity.
Gender as an infrastructure for appropriation and femininity as a domain for upholding masculine claims to sovereignty are policed in ways that would not be required if the aim were only to safeguard reproductive labor in a narrow sense. Nor are they merely a remnant from an allegedly more brutal, premodern past. Gender as phantom possession is a surrogate or a sort of compensation for the ongoing losses experienced in dispossessive and corrosive marketization, or a disposable trophy to complete successful careers of material accumulation. As such, it is highly regulated. In the fully established heteronormative gender regime of the nineteenth century, phantom possession is invested with eliminatory associations. For the logic of propertization to function, any confusion of subject- and object-position must be banned. Hence the criminalization of male homosexuality and the unintelligibility of lesbianism. Trans and gender-nonconforming identities defy the logic of gender's boundedness. They are conceived as levelers, as dangerous threats to the infrastructure of appropriation. Intersex bodies, which in their very anatomy defeat the fantasy according to which there is a clear and unsurmountable boundary separating the position of the appropriator from the appropriable get surgically re-enclosed, in most cases into the bounds of femininity.
I have discussed dominion, instituted as slavery and patriarchal marriage, as a form of modern social domination. Phantom possession, in turn, provides the embodied cultural infrastructure necessary to stabilize, conceal, and extend it. If there is something derelict about free, independent Black people and unmarried women, their appropriation and control can be disguised as assistance, complementarity, or simply normalcy. Phantom possession is a reified mark of propertized social relations. And it is more than mere “naturalization”—not a certain set of norms wrongly taken to be immutable and “natural,” but the specific kind of objectification necessitated by a reproductive system anchored in dominion. As in Marx's analysis of commodity fetishism, one could say that what phantom possession treats as individual property is in fact a reified reflection of (deeply flawed) social relations. This “property” crystallizes in individual dispositions. It relegates subjects into different ontological spheres; they are marked as having or as being phantom possession, as entitled to appropriate or as appropriable. As ingrained habits and as a regulative, objectifying fantasy, phantom possession, if not “an ideology,” is certainly ideological.63 It enables—and aggravates—domination in the specific form of dominion (that is, institutionalized disposal over propertized others).64 It also introduces a practical contradiction between the actual scope of human interdependency and the fantasies of full sovereignty and appropriability.65 This contradiction, however, has often led to reactionary intensification alongside or instead of progressive resolutions. In this regard, phantom possession, or the modern regime of race and gender, differs from the paradigmatic case of Marxist ideology critique, from freedom and equality in the labor contract. Devoid of progressive footholds, the ideologies arising not from exchange but from propertization thus might not qualify as “ideologies” in the narrower, dialectical sense. In its bleak, divisive force, phantom possession provides the infrastructure that allows for ongoing primitive accumulation and facilitates the system of surplus accumulation. Phantom possession provides social protection on a symbolic level, thereby compensating and co-opting parts of the laboring classes. It wields the archliberal promise not of equal freedom before the law, but of unlimited freedom after it, if only in that small, bounded domain that one can call one's own and does not fully possess anyhow, and if only in the stunted form of authoritarian freedom.
5. The Defense of Phantom Possession
As embodied identity or phantom possession, propertized protection is abstracted from its at times unruly concrete objects and further fortified. Phantom possession already serves as a defense against the resistance of the objects of dominion, and it becomes even more salient as a substitute after their loss to emancipation. The status of the possessor in modern law is not broken by the change of ownership—as when a tenant retains his rights despite the owner's selling her property. Likewise, phantom possession is secured against shifts in dominion. Propertized identities can outlive formal emancipation, that is, the apparent transformation of personhood and reproductive powers into the self-ownership of the previously dominated people.66 Emancipation in liberal societies, both in the case of the abolition of slavery and in women's liberation, took the form of the legal attribution of self-ownership. The formerly dominated groups gained rights but no material dominion for themselves. The abolitionists' demand for “forty acres and a mule” for each freedman was not met; nor was reproductive labor moved out of the shadow of production. As Du Bois has shown in intricate detail in his account of the US South during Reconstruction, objectification even intensified after abolition in the context of a divisive class struggle from above and a brutal, if episodic, restoration of fictitious property on the ground.67 Under these conditions, the place vacated by dominion is replenished, and the dispositions shaped by propertization remain active.
Having parts of one's individuality still bound as phantom possession, however, also forms an ongoing condition of emancipation itself. Played out according to the script of self-ownership, liberation paradoxically requires a reference point in propertization. Subjects who are supposedly sovereign “by nature” need that reference point embodied by others, unleashing the historical dynamics that this paper has tried to partially reconstruct. The historically propertized groups, by contrast, can draw on their own past in order to find representations of non-self-ownership: once, we were bound, but now we are free. This reference, nevertheless, effects a peculiar self-objectification along with emancipation and gives rise to what is observable in liberal political discourse as a desire for victimhood even on the side of the most privileged. In times when direct dominium over people is legally prohibited, such “wounded attachment” is precious enough to be resented and emulated by destabilized phantom-owners.68 Under the pressure of dispossessive marketization, progressive propertization, that is, self-ownership for the formerly propertized, remains “burdened,” as Hartman has phrased it, “with the mark of the object status.”69 By chaining the revolt of the dispossessed to their phantasmatic objects of sovereignty, the fight for material—including ecological—social protection is moved out of reach. At this conjuncture, the effort to link emancipation and social protection would have to amount to the following: not only should all expropriators be expropriated, but all phantom-property should also depropertized.
A far cry from that agenda, the present return to authoritarian phantom possession is in part shaped by a reaction to—and jealousy of—progressive identity politics. But it is also conditioned by the material setting of financialized capitalism. In many liberal societies, the last decades witnessed an assault on all the forms of material social protection that social democracy and socialism had achieved. Within expanded Polanyian terms, this process can be analyzed as a novel form of dispossessive marketization, primarily built upon the marketization of money. Financialization has created new fictitious monetary commodities, for instance in creating tradable securities over less transferable assets like mortgage-backed securities, which led to the financial crisis of 2008, and derivatives like futures options and the now gigantic number of nontransparent “over-the-counter” financial packages.70 Aided by trading algorithms and digital information technologies, those fictitious commodities are exchanged at a speed unthinkable in previous speculative cycles, as in the famous Dutch tulip bubble of 1635–36 or the railroad boom before the panic of 1873. Against this background, it is notable that an understanding of the property form that sees property in its classic shape, defined as a bounded, manageable domain, is severely limited. Commodification itself seems no longer to presuppose the property form, as various forms of streaming, leasing, and especially the selling of data with entirely unclear property status demonstrate.71 And with the massive rise in private debt, the individual possession of objects is often based on the precarious condition of managing liabilities. Colonialism and primitive accumulation dispossessed by propertization; neoliberalism dispossesses by precarization.72 But the decoupling of dispossessive mechanisms from the property-form does not rule out the possibility that the reaction to these mechanisms plays out—regressively—as propertization.73 The reactionary strata's recourse to the logic of property might even be further fueled by an anxiety about property's dissolution in an age of access.
Perhaps the most widely acknowledged aspect of neoliberalism is its combination of precarity and debt with a cult of the individual. Adriana Zaharijević describes the paradoxical promise of this individualism as a “return to invulnerability.”74 Neoliberal individualism arises from the expansion of market logics to various societal spheres, as Wendy Brown demonstrates in Undoing the Demos. Market rationality individuates negatively, in that it privatizes and deregulates spheres such as healthcare, education, and even democracy, but it also provides a positive script according to which individuals can understand and comport themselves as “firms” or entrepreneurial selves. The forms of right-wing mobilization that we currently witness betray the individualism of the neoliberal age in that they draw on individual phantom possession much more than on collective points of reference. The fallback position, in the face of a crisis of collective self-determination, is the bounded domain of individual sovereignty. We want to be invulnerable alone. And against the impossible demand for industrious, accumulative success, the underlying ideal of self-ownership still has its compensation to offer: when “making it” threatens to fail, then there still remains “breaking it,” or fashioning oneself as entitled to appropriate anyway.75
The defense of phantom possession reacts to the provocation that emancipation poses for the received order of entitlement. This is its defensive side. But it also counteracts economic pressure by reclaiming an entitlement that, though not economic in nature, does have material effects. This is its possessive side. Even more importantly, though, this entitlement provides security and sovereignty on the symbolic level, if only in the form of a vacuous substitute. Hence its “phantom” quality.
If we review issues central to contemporary authoritarian mobilization, we can distinguish three different defensive strategies: institutionalization, self-defense, and the restoration of phantom possession. These three strategies, which I will briefly discuss below by way of a conclusion, mirror the trio of authoritarian energies outlined by Brown and discussed in the first section of this paper: “The first strain yearns for protection, stability, and order. . . . The second strain yearns for disruption and revenge. . . . The third strain yearns for a fix.”76
The first authoritarian strain seeks to defend phantom possession through its institutionalization. This strategy invests in restoring an outer reflection for the felt entitlement to dispose over reproductive capacity, racialized mobility, and personhood. In a previous constellation, full dominion, that is, slavery and coverture, served as anchoring points for the dispositions embodied as race and gender. After abolition, new institutional arrangements can assume the functions of stabilizing phantom possession. Border regimes, detention centers, prisons, and abortion bans keep propertized groups in the state of phantom possession that is disproportionately disposable in their agency and reproduction. They remain appropriable, not by individual fictitious owners, but by the order erected around them. In a recent article, Jacqueline Rose reports how, at the British Yarl’s Wood Immigrant Removal Centre, women who have been trafficked to the UK are being treated—as it were in good feminist fashion—as responsible for their fate. Consequently, it becomes nearly impossible for them to prove that they have not cooperated in their illegal entry to the country. If the traffickers have confiscated the women's passports, they find themselves arrested for false documentation. The sentence for this, twelve months' imprisonment, happens to coincide with the period after which deportation is automatic. Precisely the denouncement of fictitious ownership and the attribution of responsibility to the detained migrant women thus facilitate their seamless disposal. Basically, they first get treated as women, that is, as partially propertized, with the result that they suffer ongoing sexual assault by staff members, but also are accorded responsibility for their own past actions. Once this responsibility has been used against them, as proof of intended illegal entry into the country, they are no longer conceived of as abused women but rather as regular illegal immigrants. As such, their very agency poses a threat to the racialized phantom possession of border and population control, and they are removed. As Jacqueline Rose summarizes it, the migrant women “are either assigned punishing forms of human agency or deprived of agency altogether.”77 These assignments are not random. They follow the logics of institutional arrangements designed to defend white phantom possession over the status and mobility of immigrants.
While the first type of defense identified by Brown seeks stabilization, the authoritarian strain that she describes as driven by “revenge and disruption” follows a strategy of self-defense of phantom possession. Its constituency does not adhere to the (however hypocritical) progressive narrative that seeks to set the defense of phantom possession apart from past forms of dominion. Members of this group might have lived or desired inflated forms of phantom possession, unstable proxies for the lost normalcy of dominion. Their authoritarianism envisions the fascist dissolution of any barrier to appropriation. They feel dispossessed and want to conquer—not to have and keep, but to wreck and break. Only in turning against the object in full destructiveness, only in the moment of violence, is their full sovereignty fleetingly realized: episodic absolute dominion. In this vein, proponents of the “incel” movement, masculinist groups describing themselves as “involuntary celibates,” condone rape and other forms of violence against women on the grounds that men have a right, temporarily thwarted by feminists, over female reproductive and especially sexual capacities. The terrorism of phantom possession is likewise directed against migrants and racialized minorities when white fascists attack people they perceive as stepping out of the bounds of their “proper place” as disposable objects. While these forms of aggression replicate ultimate forms of abusive control over the propertized objects themselves, the fascist self-defense of phantom possession is often additionally framed by a narrative that presents certain groups as agents of the loss. Members of these groups then figure as “thieves” and reap the violence reserved for threats to one's property. Thus many of the statements associated with right-wing terror attacks—for instance, the manifesto written in connection with the Christchurch mosque shootings in March 2019—reference the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory of “the Great Replacement.” That conspiracy theory insinuates a Jewish plan to replace white populations with immigrants and prepare for this via feminist infiltration resulting in lowered birthrates. Another group declared responsible for lack of control over female reproductive capacity as well as for racialized groups' mobility, is “gender ideologues.” Promoting the self-defense of phantom possession, fascist propaganda today does more than pit an “us” against “them,” or revel in a heroic aestheticism of the Riefenstahl variety. It operates through seemingly absurd images like the “penis bottle,” a fake news item circulated on social media before the last Brazilian election. The story featured illustrations of the supposed fact that the social democrats had made it compulsory for nurseries to use baby bottles with teats in the shape of miniature penises.78 This, so the conspiracy theory went, was deployed to counteract natural gender norms from the very beginning, cutting innocent babies off from the resources that are rightfully theirs—the female breast or at least an appropriate surrogate—and rendering these future citizens vulnerable to the infiltration of left-wing politics, itself associated with the insignia of castration. The image of a white baby in front of the phallic suckle demonstrates how, besides triggering sexual panic more narrowly understood, the dissolution of gender norms is perceived as a total breakdown of the infrastructure of appropriation. As Lorenzo Bernini argues with regard to the former Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, the contemporary fascist leader figure is no longer the stern patriarch with military insignia. He is the “daddy.”79 Accordingly, the crucial operation of fascist propaganda today is to achieve not the “Caesarist” identification with the leader,80 but the regressive identification with the plight of the dispossessed newborn.
The third authoritarian strain, those yearning for a fix, are the ones who do not go so far as to unleash the destructive violence stored in the schema and dispositions of phantom possession. They just want its facade restored. They face emancipatory claims that reject their entitlement; they even see new types of phantom-(self-)possession forged in identity politics. Lost objects claim to own themselves. Their own phantom possession crumbles; somebody might even have once called them an old white man. The signature affect of this group is resentment, and while they can go on and on about their alleged support for emancipation, they are irritated at any display of entitlement by formerly oppressed groups. For the most part, they avoid directly, or at least openly, attacking those groups. But they seek measures that allow them to safeguard their own standing. The most common of these follow from complaints about an alleged loss of freedom of speech, or censorship through political correctness. Thus, though in a milder discursive register, we see here the same identification with the plight of the dispossessed phantom-owner, deprived of the basic categories that would allow for self-expression. In desperate need of restoring their domains of sovereignty, these subjects can easily be won over with soothing promises and are ready to ignore whatever damage their upholstered comfort might cause others.
Revolting though they may be, these three strategies to defend phantom possession—by institutionalization, self-defense, or restoration—are not entirely irrational. Measured by the rationality of the antisocial volition of the absolute owner, they do fulfill their purpose. There is a gain in the defense of phantom possession, especially for those who do not stand a chance of winning cultural capital from their self-fashioning as masters of liberal propriety. The antagonism that we perceive between emancipatory propertization—the assertion of self-ownership by oppressed groups—and ideologically protective propertization—the defense of phantom possession—is also a struggle over how to accumulate social protection in a world under the pressure of rampant marketization. Authoritarianism, then, although it appears to be liberalism's nemesis, is a contradiction that liberalism itself bore to the world. It did this by tying freedom, as self-ownership, to the modern form of property.
I want to thank the two anonymous reviewers as well as the editorial team of Critical Times. I am still in awe of the generous, passionate, and discerning feedback with which each of them challenged me. I also want to thank the organizers and audience of two events that crucially helped shape my argument: the conference “Fascism? Populism? Democracy? Critical Theories in a Global Context” at the University of Brighton (January 17–19, 2019) and the student-organized workshop “Gender, Race, Property” at Humboldt University Berlin (May 25–26, 2019). I am also grateful to the colleagues and friends who read and discussed successive drafts of the article: Adriana Zaharijević, Brenna Bhandar, Isette Schumacher, Lea-Riccarda Prix, and Ann Copestake.
Cheryl Harris famously describes whiteness as itself a kind of property; Brenna Bhandar traces the coconstitution of race and property under the term “racial abstraction”; and Saidiya Hartman analyzes how differential claims to self-ownership outlive abolition. Rita Segato's conception of “masculine mandate” also draws on the logics of property and colonial appropriation. See Harris, “Whiteness as Property”; Bhandar, Colonial Lives, 5–17, 105; Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 119; Segato, “Manifesto,” 199.
This opposition is of course somewhat undermined by the fact that they define neoliberalism differently and that continuity and discontinuity can and do coexist in historical developments.
Polanyi has a complicated picture of what those crisis-tendencies consist in. Even though he at times sounds like an essentialist who postulates that objects such as land and people simply get destroyed by being used as commodities, his encompassing notion of crises is more complex and systemic. It is derived from the necessary incompatibility of segmental countermovements within a liberal capitalist framework. For instance, the protection of workers via social welfare directly counteracts the protection of the currency.
Fraser, “The End of Progressive Neoliberalism.” Fraser first made the point that progressive social movements have helped legitimize neoliberalism with regard to second wave feminism; see Fraser, “Feminism, Capitalism.” For a detailed critique of this diagnosis, see Aslan and Gambetti, “Provincializing Fraser's History.”
To be clear, I am not arguing that Fraser relegates all ideological forces to the background; her account precisely highlights the ideological dimensions of liberal progressivism. Moreover, her reserving of some space for ideology, if only in the “background,” does distinguish her account from straightforwardly reductionist ones. See Fraser, “Beyond Marx's Hidden Abode.”
Taylor, “What's Wrong with Negative Liberty”; Honneth, Freedom's Right, 42–61. Brown’s full description of authoritarian freedom is: “Freedom as a right of aggression against social mores, protections, and justice; freedom as entitlement to refuse democratic principles and accountability; freedom as anti-social and anti-political; and freedom that is perfectly compatible with undemocratic governments—this is what neoliberalism bore to the world. And, when this formation is also energized by the rancor of wounded whiteness—wounds generated by neoliberal economic effects—it can become freedom with a fascist glint in its eye.” Brown, “What Was Emancipation?” 2.
The specificity of modern property will be discussed in section 2. See also note 25.
Bhandar, Colonial Lives, 77–113 (chap. 4).
This question would obviously deserve a much longer treatment. I base my judgment on the discussion in Garnsey, Thinking about Property, 178–80. What is perhaps more important to note is that even if Roman property law included the right to abuse, this would be embedded in a totally different normative order based on virtues and not on individual subjective rights. For the difference between “classical” and “modern” Roman law, see also Menke, Kritik der Rechte, 31–34. Daniel Loick also emphasizes the right to abuse in his trenchant critique of property; see Loick, Missbrauch des Eigentums, 10, 19–45.
The papal argument was that property rights cannot be circumvented, because as soon as one eats something, one has used the right to destroy. For a more encompassing treatment of the Franciscan poverty debates in relation to the emergence of the modern property form, see: Garnsey, Thinking about Property, 98–106; Agamben, Highest Poverty, 123–43; Loick, Missbrauch des Eigentums, 92–96.
Blackstone, Commentaries, vol. 2, 1.
Rights are held by the individual, and though proclaimed to be inalienable, they depend on the guarantee of a sovereign state just as the security of property does. In further analogy to material property, rights guarantee a sphere of one's proper will (Eigenwille), a domain within which the subject can do (or say, or vote, or believe) whatever they want. See Menke, Kritik der Rechte, 55, 192–96; Villey, “Le ‘jus in re.’”
In Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel famously elaborated on this point. He interpreted the institution of property by commenting on the General State Laws for the Prussian States in the revolutionary spirit of Napoleon's Code Civil and emphasized the entitlement to absolute volitional disposal over external goods. Rather than thinking of self-ownership as a natural given, Hegel argued that recognition as such an owner was required in order for one to experience oneself as possessed of a will and thus as being a person. The freedom of the abstract person, however, is only the first step to the full notion of positive social freedom that Hegel develops. See Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, 189–98.
Cedric J. Robinson has argued that capitalism should be understood as shaped by the hierarchies of medieval Europe. While this is on some level correct, I worry about dehistoricizing those hierarchies. The analysis of propertization can grasp how the transition to capitalism, precisely by breaking with some of the feudal hierarchies, reconfigured and intensified other forms of oppression. See Robinson, Black Marxism, 10–13.
Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 40; Maria Ebert helped me appreciate this point.
Enslaved people were financialized not only as bonds in loans, but to the extent that in the Southern states, absent a stable currency, they served as the general equivalent and were credited via “slave banks.” Amira Möding brought this to my attention.
As Jenny Bourne Wahl has shown in detail, the legal restrictions that were imposed to curb unrestricted violence against slaves were not seen as an affirmation of the rights or dignity of the slaves but meant to safeguard collective interests in the preservation of slaves as property and to avoid triggering too much resistance to slavery as institution. See Bourne Wahl, Bondsman's Burden, 143–44.
While I am focusing here on the process of propertization as a societal process, Pateman foregrounds it as the supplement to the social contract. See Pateman, Sexual Contract, 110. I owe this clarification to Bibi Stewart.
The fraught analogies between women and nature, and Black people and animals, seem to me to have their basis in the “radius” of propertization. This is not only an effect of propertization, but a result of the productivist paradigm of labor. Lea-Riccarda Prix convinced me that a new understanding of the concept of labor centered on reproduction would help us to overcome this dichotomy.
Ironically, before the recent renaissance of Marxist feminism in social reproduction theory, Fraser herself argued that the phase of this necessary link between value-production and unpaid reproductive female labor had ended. See Fraser, “Heterosexism,” 285.
Barbara Ehrenreich points out these limitations in her earlier Marxist feminist approach in thoughts accompanying the republication of her influential article “What is Socialist Feminism?” in 2018.
Of course, attention to property logics alone cannot lead to an exhaustive analysis of race and gender. This is already reflected in my selective take on the positions I reference, all of which are far more nuanced than my interpretation, which is guided by the requirements of an overarching argument about authoritarian mobilization.
I focus here on the individual dimensions of phantom possession, as these seem most pertinent in the context of the current rise of authoritarianism, an outgrowth of neoliberal subjectivity. But collective phantom-property, as in the nation and its colonies, would have to be integrated into a full account of the historical dynamics of social protection and propertization.
There is rich archival evidence of the fact that the European working classes were keenly aware of the institution of slavery. For a recent overview, see Sell, “Worst Conceivable Form.” For the relation between poor whites and Black slaves in the US, see Merritt, Masterless Men, esp. 114–42 (Chap. 4).
Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 700. I am indebted to Vanessa Thompson for connecting white wages and phantom possession.
Myers, “Beyond the Psychological Wage,” 7. Note, however, that Myers calls precisely this general racist attitude or worldview “dominion,” a term I have defined much more narrowly to refer to institutionalized property-like disposal.
Margaret Davies most explicitly analyses heterosexuality as based on a propertized subject-object logic. This analysis is also implied by the accounts of Catharine MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin. See Davies, “Feminist Appropriations,” 386–89; MacKinnon, “Feminism, Marxism, Method,” 541; Dworkin, Pornography, 105.
Whether or not it is seen as an ideology obviously depends on one's understanding of ideology. The recent debate largely rejects the idea that ideologies are systems of ideas and favors praxis-centered theoretical accounts. According to these, phantom possession could be said to be an ideology. See Haslanger, “Racism”; Jaeggi, “Rethinking Ideology,” 64; Geuss, Idea, 15.
The notion of “practical contradiction” is central in Rahel Jaeggi's dialectical understanding of ideology. See Jaeggi, “Rethinking Ideology,” 76.
Guyora Binder argues for the even stronger claim that the institution of slavery itself, not just the propertized identities, can outlive emancipation. See Binder, “Slavery of Emancipation.”
The term is, of course, Brown's, and it follows from a critique of the liberal idea of equality. In Brown's analysis, “the will that ‘took to hurting,’” or the attachment to one's past subordination, allows for the realization of an outward-turning revenge. In my account, ressentiment takes the form of a more passive, jealousy-inducing triumph, showing off to the former oppressor that one's past propertization now stabilizes one's own rather than the phantom-owner's freedom, however limited this freedom may be. See Brown, “Wounded Attachments,” 73.
For an analysis of the central role of precarization in neoliberal governmentality, see Lorey, States of Insecurity, 68–70.
For an analysis of regression as failed problem-solving and not just as temporal relapse, see Jaeggi, “Resistance to the Perpetual Danger of Relapse,” 20; see also Allen, Jaeggi, and Redecker, “Progress.”
Niklas Angebauer makes a compelling case that the neoliberal entrepreneurial self is still premised on self-ownership. See Angebauer, “Property and Capital in the Person.”
Phillips, “Bolsonaro Business Backers.” I am indebted to Marianna Poyares for great discussions about Brazilian politics.
On the affective identification with the “Caesarist” leader, see Neumann, The Democratic and the Authoritarian State, 280–82.